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Would-Be California Candidates Whoop It Up for Attention

Democrats: Big-time names are making the rounds of state delegation as potential gubernatorial hopefuls. But they're not the only ones at work.


CHICAGO — A cry rang out midway through the California delegation's party at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange one night this week--"Gray Davis is on the dance floor!"--and all who heard it swung around for a look.

And there he was, the former state controller and current lieutenant governor, in the middle of a giant conga line, gyrating--albeit a bit stiffly--to the song, "Hot, Hot, Hot."

All in a day's work. With Democratic Party activists gathered here by the thousands, Davis, an expected candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination two years from now, is eager to be noticed by those who write the checks, stuff the envelopes and plan the strategies that win California elections.

Davis is not alone. Two other Democrats prominently mentioned as possible successors to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson--Sen. Dianne Feinstein and State Comptroller Kathleen Connell--have been trying to draw at least a bit of attention to their own prospects, even as the party focuses on reelecting President Clinton.

Davis and Connell found themselves just a few feet from each other granting television interviews the other day. While they avoided explicit mention of their own political plans, at this stage anything they can do to buttress their name recognition is a plus.

Feinstein, easily the best known of the three, need not work as hard. Still, she has gamely made the rounds, even though she is still recovering from broken ribs she suffered during a fall at her San Francisco home.

With Wilson barred by law from seeking another term--and Democrats pining for an office that they have not held since 1982--the race for the party's nomination could become a crowded affair.

Other names being floated in talks about the '98 contests are White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, a former Central Valley congressman expected to give up his current post even if Clinton wins reelection, and Deputy Secretary of the Interior John Garamendi, the former state insurance commissioner who unsuccessfully sought the governor's nomination in 1990. Though both avoid talk of gubernatorial aspirations, both have been visible at California events this week.

"A political convention is like an industry trade show," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "It's an opportunity to network and display your wares. The press, pundits, interest groups and activists are all here. You can conduct a lot of business quick."

Yaroslavsky said that he is not eyeing another elective post but is trying to conduct county business with any White House officials he comes across. He adds that inevitably, the gubernatorial race and other critical state elections come up in conversations among delegates.

That's why Davis is often stationed in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton and Towers, where the state's delegates stay, snagging handshakes with whoever passes. It's also why he shares the podium with California Democratic Chairman Art Torres at the daily breakfasts of the state's 424 delegates.

Davis even set up giant silver bowls filled with California-grown raisins for arriving delegates at the hotel--complete with a sign declaring: "Compliments of Lt. Gov. Gray Davis."

Davis portrays his burst of activity--he also helped inaugurate a new Chicago memorial to Vietnam War veterans--as part of his role as co-chairman of the state's delegation.

"My focus is on helping the Democrats win in November, not on anything beyond that," he said. "We need to reelect President Clinton and win back the Congress. That's what I'm here for."

But while ignoring the topic publicly, Davis is also here to send a message to those within the party that he is the natural candidate for the state's top elective post.

Connell, however, is not one to yield to the traditional political pecking order. The former investment banker and director of housing in Los Angeles surprised many when she won her first bid for public office in 1994, succeeding Davis as state controller. With a doctorate in economics and urban planning and a polished manner, she is expected to seek state office again.

When she won her current job over retired GOP Assemblyman Tom McClintock, Connell was her own biggest contributor, lending the campaign $1.6 million of its $2.2 million. Those deep pockets could cause other potential donors to take a gubernatorial bid seriously.

Haunting their efforts is Feinstein, who has not committed herself to a gubernatorial race (she lost the 1990 race to Wilson before capturing her Senate seat in 1992) but has not ruled it out, either. Most political analysts give Feinstein--with her national exposure, fund-raising clout and proven experience in statewide campaigns--the clear edge if she decides to run.

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